Camp Leads the Way

Early Action, Layers of Compliance Made for a Successful Camp Experience in 2020

If you read our "In Service" column about the American Camp Association (ACA) in the January 2021 issue, you already know that as soon as the pandemic's impact became obvious, the camp took action to bring together a diverse field of experts to help camps operate successfully. (And if you haven't read it, you should! Go to A Look Inside the American Camp Association to learn more about the ACA and its efforts to keep camps operational through the summer of 2020.)

A study released in August 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed how four overnight summer camps in Maine managed to operate successfully and safely without the spread of COVID-19 last summer.

"We wanted to make sure that we convened as much research as we could in the summer of 2020 to gather data to understand what made camps successful last summer to best inform planning for summer 2021 and the best practices," said ACA CEO and President Tom Rosenberg.

Crucially, successful camps in 2020 employed a multilayered nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPI) strategy that followed measures outlined by the ACA in its Field Guide for Camps on Implementation of CDC Guidance. Each NPI provides limited protection, but if you've read about the Swiss cheese, or layered approach, to protecting from disease, you understand how consistently implementing recommended NPIs creates a "culture of compliance" that prevents and mitigates the transmission of disease.

"We foresaw that there would still be COVID this coming summer," Rosenberg added. So the research will be expanded to include even more information to help camps operate. The studies will include an examination of NPIs, as well as a closer look at business operations to show the practices and costs of adaptations such as testing and providing additional staff, Rosenberg said.

"We're urging public officials to think now," he explained. "Don't wait until April to think about how camps can operate as safely as possible."

Because of ACA guidance, many summer overnight and day camps successfully adapted using cohorts—among the first programmed activities to do so and providing guidance to schools as they opened for the fall semester.

"The idea is that the camper or staff person is in a small cohort—they live and eat and program together," Rosenberg said. "So basically, in a pre- or post-pandemic summer experience, a cabin group could make their own choices, but this summer it was about group decision-making. Within that cohort, they can interact face-to-face with less physical distancing, but the whole idea is that if someone becomes symptomatic, you can isolate just that cohort and the rest of camp continues."

He added that kids really adapted well to masking, cohorts and other novel requirements introduced due to the pandemic. But more importantly, they got the camp experience they needed.

"They got to be with their friends and have fun. They got to go and have a measure of independence and try new things and make mistakes and try again—become more resilient," Rosenberg said. "For those lucky kids who had the opportunity to go to day, overnight or family camp last summer, it was a wonderful respite from all the challenges everyone was suffering."

He added, "Nature is very restorative, and I know firsthand from so many camp directors who have shared survey results—even after the first week they were coming back with tremendous responses, exclaiming, 'Oh my gosh, my child is back to normal and it's only been a week!'

"Kids are resilient, but we're starting to see data pour in on the mental and emotional health of children and teens, and it's pretty frightening. This summer, in addition to parents and kids yearning for in-person learning and community, I think from a mental-emotional-social health perspective, camp is more important than ever for every boy and girl, every college student who might work at camps and, frankly, for us parents too.

"Kids lean best in safe environments. We have always worked toward that. So this summer, more than any other summer, our ultimate goal is for everybody to get these opportunities."

The ACA continues to update its research and guidance to help camps operate successfully. Keep an eye on the website at to stay on top of these updates, and to get the most current information on safe operations.